Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1
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Hamlet is very unhappy about the state of affairs in Denmark. He is mourning the loss of his father, devastated at the marriage between his mother and uncle, and horrified at what his father's ghost has shared with him.
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. O God, God, / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!Act One scene two, ll. 129-34
Hamlet's first soliloquy finds him more melancholic, more desperate, than at any other point in the play. In the beginning, his motives and feelings are clear in a way that they never are after his encounter with the ghost. Hamlet is simply disgusted that his mother, who had appeared to be so much in love with his father, has married Claudius, her vastly inferior former brother-in-law. For Hamlet as the play opens, existence itself is a burden; he wishes that the body could simply melt away and free him from his torment. Although sometimes his rhetoric in the ensuing Acts resonates with this first declaration of misery, Hamlet's sincerity becomes much more difficult to judge once he has received his supernatural charge. His moods become more manic, his language more explosive and punning, and his motivation becomes infinitely mysterious. Here, though, freed from the need to act on his thoughts and feelings (he even says, at the end of the speech, "But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue"), he is truly in his miserable element.
By the way, the first line of this speech reads differently in different editions. Some editors follow the second quarto and admit "sallied flesh" (or even "sullied flesh"). Others follow the first folio and put "solid flesh." The emphasis is either on the flesh's innate depravity or on its frustrating solidity. Because Hamlet expresses a desire that the flesh go from a firm and resilient to something like a liquid or gaseous state, I have opted for "solid" as more consistent with the elemental imagery of the passage.
There, my blessing with thee, / And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. / Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, / Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel, / But do not dull thy palm with entertainment / Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. [...] Neither a borrower nor a lender be, / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls th' edge of husbandry. / This above all, to thine own self be true, / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.Act One scene three, ll. 55-80
Beloved of refrigerator magnet and bumper sticker companies everywhere, Polonius' advice to Laertes puts the critic in a double bind. On the one hand, there is no denying that his advice is often sound, if generally cliched and obvious, and very memorably expressed. On the other, the speech must be read in context, and when done so it becomes deeply ironic. One phrase in particular is very rich coming from Polonius -- "to thine own self be true, / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man." Polonius is, of course, the quintessential false man. He is forever plotting strategems and eavesdropping behind the arras. That he nevertheless feels comfortable positing that one should be true to oneself (whatever that means) and thereby never false to any man is a testament to his shallow disregard for the deeper import and meaning of his language. Polonius mouths words without meaning them. He is windy and empty. And this speech in particular, with its smug certainties, serves as a stark contrast to Hamlet's searching, questioning, endless attempts at self-exploration.